Over the last two months, Case Manager Touni Vardeh-Esakian has helped to house over twenty clients from The Lighthouse emergency shelter. He goes about it the old fashioned way: looking for ads on Kijiji, calling landlords and helping clients fill out application forms.
The biggest challenge in finding housing is convincing landlords to give his clients a chance. “Homeless has a different meaning to lots of people who’ve never been homeless before,” says Vardeh-Esakian, “I try to explain to them that they’re just normal people who’ve had something go wrong in their lives, they’re here temporarily and we’re trying to get them back into the community.”
Vardeh-Esakian also helps clients navigate Social Services, look for jobs, replace lost IDs, and attend court hearings. “I’m there for support,” he says, “Also, I’m there just to talk, because people have a lot of stress in their life, and sometimes they just want to sit down and let it all out.”
Sheila Poorman was recently hired as a full time Care Aide, a new position created as part of the six month pilot project. She started at The Lighthouse as a custodian, but once she met the residents, they opened up to her and she quickly realized that she wanted to work in client care.
“I come from a background of addictions, so I know what the clients are going through and I have an understanding of their situation,” says Poorman, who moved to the Stabilization Unit and started to build relationships with her clients. Working in Stabilization reminded her of her mother, and how her addiction eventually took her life.
As a Care Aide, she now helps residents with activities, such as reminding them of doctor’s appointments, helping them with laundry and changing one client’s medical socks every day.
Since the pilot project launched, Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian have teamed up to help each other. “We support each other if one of us needs help, if one can’t handle it. We’re always there for each other, it’s like a marriage,” jokes Vardeh-Esakian. The duo have set out to help residents manage their rooms and promote healthy lifestyles. As Poorman explains, “a problem with most of the clients is that they’re hoarders, and it causes health issues for themselves and any other tenants.”
People hoard, “because they’re missing something in their life and they’re trying to compensate for it,” says Poorman, “So if it’s something they lost, like a family member, you know that’s something that was meaningful to them. So they take all these little possessions that they find and they keep them and they don’t want to lose them.”
It’s slow and patient work for Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian as they try to help one client at a time. Poorman admits, “Even for us it’s very difficult to get their permission and have them feel comfortable for us to go in. We need to have a really close relationship to touch their clothes or go in their personal belongings. We can’t just go in and start throwing stuff out, they have to trust us.”
Once they get into a room, they’ll go through their possessions one by one, asking what can be thrown away and what can stay. The work consists of, “mainly going through their clothing, making sure they have dressers to put them in, a laundry hamper, and a garbage can. We try to get them in a routine of doing their laundry and setting a time of when they would clean their room,” explains Poorman.
Since this is a new service being offered, it takes some time for residents to get used to the idea of someone to help clean their room. Sometimes Poorman will help clients move from one apartment to another, and get rid of unwanted things in the process.
“I had one client who, after we went in and helped him, he put it upon himself to say, ‘I want to get rid of more stuff,’ says Poorman, “And that’s the point where we want to see the clients, to take the initiative to say, ‘Ok, I want to get rid of stuff’ on their own. At least they have the mindset of ‘I’m doing this’, instead of us doing it to them.”
Vardeh-Esakian is going to school as well as working at The Lighthouse. He’s set to graduate with his Bachelor of Social Work next year and plans to stay on as a Case Manager. “You do get attached to these clients because you work with them every day,” he says, “You see them breakfast, lunch and supper. You see them cry, you see them intoxicated, you see them on their worst days and on their happiest days.”
Both Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian are parents, and their children demonstrate the same care and compassion to clients as they do. “I bring my kids here to volunteer. They come to the main kitchen and they love it. My eldest daughter, she comes here and she really likes it,” says Vardeh-Esakian.
Poorman and her two daughters used to cruise 20th St. and offer rides to people before The Lighthouse Mobile Outreach program launched. “My daughter would say, ‘Mom, let’s go see if they’re ok.’ So we would, and some of them needed a ride,” recalls Poorman, “And that was when in my heart I felt I needed to help these people a little bit more, and not just by giving them a ride.”
“I think they feel safe when they see the Lighthouse van, when they see us around, because they know that we’re there for them,” explains Poorman. “We understand them,” adds Vardeh-Esakian. Poorman nods in agreement, “We’ll treat them with respect,” she says, “And it’s a good lesson for my daughters to understand that homelessness isn’t an ugly thing.”